Saturday, 25 August 2012

My letter to the LRB re. Perry Anderson on India

This is the text of the letter to the LRB I wrote regarding Perry Anderson's essays on India. The fact that they did not publish it, despite my unsubtle hints that the comelier amongst their interns were welcome to Monica Lewinsky me as a quid pro quo, militates to the conclusion that their decision was prompted not by considerations of good taste but a mean spirited desire to deny avenues of spiritual advancement to young people belonging to the large breasted community. 
Here is the text of my epistle-
10th July
'Prof. Anderson writes-
 'Nehru’s claim of an ‘impress of oneness’, going back six thousand years, persisted from the prewar writings collected in The Unity of India to his final dispute with China, in which the Mahabharata could be invoked as proof that the North-East Frontier Agency had been part of Mother India from time immemorial, rather as if the Nibelungenlied were to clinch German diplomatic claims to Morocco.'

What Prof. Anderson is referring to is the Indo-Chinese border dispute which led to a brief war in 1962. The Chinese claim to Arunachal Pradesh (N.E.F.A) is based on their claim to Tibet which in turn is based on the special relationship that obtained between the Manchu conquerors of China and the Tibetan theocracy. Perhaps Prof. Anderson believes that the Chinese claim to both Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh is well founded. Since Hong Kong once belonged to Britain and Macao to Portugal, he may believe that the Chinese have a legitimate claim to both London and Lisbon.

Prof. Anderson compares Nehru's decision to defend N.E.F.A to the German Kaiser's saber rattling during the Agadir Crisis. Is this a fair or reasonable analogy? Are Morocco and Germany geographically contiguous? Was the German Kaiser seeking to stir up his people to sacrifice blood and treasure to preserve their own kith and kin- or people mentioned as such in the Holy Book of his people- from a stronger and more ruthless foreign adversary? This begs the question, is the Nibelungenlied indeed a Holy Book for the German Nation? Does it state that peoples of entirely different languages, complexions and mores are all inalienably part of Germany? Does it contain anything comparable to the Bhagvad Gita within its covers? Prof. Anderson may believe it does. If so, his choice of analogy is apt. If not, it is a proof of bad faith.
India- that is Bharat (the official name of the country and the one by which it is denominated in the vernacular language of countries where Sanskrit has flourished- e.g. Indonesia)- has a special relationship with the great epic, the Maha-bharata. Nehru, an Indian, was descended from Sanskrit scholars. That is why he was called Pundit Nehru. A goodly proportion of the Indian intelligentsia at that time were similarly descended from Sanskrit scholars.  As a practical politician, if he chose to highlight the Mahabharata in connection with the defense of N.E.F.A, he is to be commended for it. He did the culturally appropriate thing. Had he, instead, simply blurted out the truth- viz. that Chairman Mao was a crazy dictator, like Hitler or Stalin, and that his regime was inflicting horrendous atrocities upon its own people, not to mention the Tibetan nation it had brutally enslaved- then he would have alienated some of his fellow Left Wing 'Liberal' friends. 

Prof. Anderson tells us -  'Of the three larger empires it witnessed, none covered the territory of Nehru’s Discovery of India. Maurya and Mughal control extended to contemporary Afghanistan, ceased much below the Deccan, and never came near Manipur. The area of Gupta control was considerably less. Separated by intervals of five hundred and a thousand years, there was no remembered political or ideological connection between these realms, or even common religious affiliation: at its height the first of them Buddhist, the second Hindu, the third Muslim. Beneath a changing mosaic of mostly regional rulers, there was more continuity of cultural and social patterns, caste – the best claimant to a cultural demarcation – being attested very early, but no uniformity.'  

What is the point Anderson is making? Is it that proper countries are those all of whose territory fell within an Empire? If so, the United States is not a proper country. Perhaps, he is saying that countries must have the same language and legal code- in which case Canada and the United Kingdom are not  proper countries. Surely, as a historian, Prof. Anderson understands that no large country displays complete uniformity. Nor are Empires very exactly definable- where does suzerainty shade into paramountcy or something more ambiguous yet? Is Prof. Anderson really unaware of the implications of the work of people like Morton Fried or Elman Service for tribe and caste formation in India? 

Anderson mentions three Empires- Maurya, Gupta and Mughal. He thinks the Maurya Empire was Buddhist and that meant it shared nothing in common with Hinduism. Anderson is wrong. Some Mauryas were Buddhists, others were Jains- and though Ashoka, the Buddhist slaughtered Jain monks- he himself, like others of his dynasty, was a patron of Brahminical Hinduism. 
  The Mughals, as Muslims, were not permitted to have Brahmin Purohits or Shraman Gurus but did patronize the patrons of those religions and also indirectly subsidized them by richly rewarding artists and intellectuals from those traditions for things like dhrupad music, riti poetry, kathak dance etc.

If Anderson has read Prof. Sheldon Pollock, he may have been mislead into thinking that Sanskrit is somehow Hindu and associated with the Gupta Empire and that this marks some sort of watershed.
The truth, however, is that Jains and Buddhists and Hindus all adopted Classical (Paninian) Sanskrit at the same time. The motivation was to have a way of distinguishing Scholastic texts from Scripture-  a bread and butter issue because otherwise Vyavahara (i.e. rules relating to diet, livelihood, etc) might metastatize and kill off Dharma- and also to 'bracket', or place in Epoch√©, Ontological differences between Schools, which, for quotidian Soteriology, had become 'distinctions without a difference'.
Thus, to apply the method of an Auerbach to Indian literature- a temptation for those approaching India through English language anthologies with their modishly stupid translations- is to subscribe to Anderson's folly. It might seem that there is a marked disjunction between 'margi' and 'desi'- i.e. High vs Folk Culture. 
No such distinction exists. Today, as throughout Indian history, it is more difficult to write correctly in the lyrical Vernacular than in any Classical language- and Academic English is a Classical Language- precisely because the threshold for meta-meatphoricity is more steeply raised whereas the lintel of entrance has been borne down and fractured by the greater weight that living languages carry, thus requiring a superior gracility and suppleness from Poetry's votive offerings- which explains perhaps the proverbial irritability of the genus irritabile vatum.
 What, in Hindi, are called riti texts, occur in every vernacular. Far from being songs of the soil, they are the pourriture noble of Classicism's vineyard. Thus, contrary to my cherished belief, Keshav Das wasn't really some rustic rube chased away from the bathing ghat by irate village belles. Nor are references to Buddhism in Sheikh Noor ud Din Wali (Alamdar-e-Kashmir) derived from 'subaltern' interaction with Ladhaki traders. Kabir wasn't ignorant of 'High Caste' Religion and Philosophy any more than Valmiki. On the contrary, the people I've named weren't ignorant shit-heads like myself. What there was to be known was known by them. They mightn't have been born into well off families. So what? They weren't stupid and did nothing to deserve the horrible modern English translation of them.

I don't deny that it was and is possible for learned men not to be aware of great classics in their own language possessed by those of different sects. It may well be that the compradors amongst my 'Iyer' ancestors only rediscovered the sublime 'Sillapadikaram', by the Jain Monk, Ilango Adigal towards the end of the Nineteenth Century. But the important point to note is that it was a re-discovery. There is no reason to believe that Kumbakonam Iyers did not know that text in the first half of the Eighteenth Century. The fact is, contact with Jain monks or nuns, by itself, is enough for any Indian- no matter how stupid, no matter how 'tamsic'- i.e lazy, uneducated or (in my case) plain downright vicious- to gain 'darshan' of the synoptic kerygma of the whole of Indian history, Indian geography, the entire Jurassic Park of Time's fossil forms.

Prof. Anderson says- 'The ‘idea of India’ was a European not a local invention, as the name itself makes clear'What on earth could he possibly mean? If Anderson is referring to the Hindu idea of India- it is well defined as Jambudvipa- a sort of notional island in which certain rituals or religious practices have a specified soteriological result. To move out of Jambudvipa is to lose caste. Indeed, one of the causes of the Mutiny of 1857 was the demand that Hindu sepoys cross 'the black water' thus losing caste. 
Prof. Anderson continues-'No such term, or equivalent, as ‘India’ existed in any indigenous language.' This is entirely untrue. Every dynasty from every part of India has at one time or another made a claim to paramountcy of Jambudvipa and there are numerous highly poetic ways of expressing this concept as attested by epigraphic evidence and surviving literary works. 
The absurdity of his own position does not strike Anderson even when he writes - 'A Greek coinage, taken from the Indus river, it was so foreign to the subcontinent that as late as the 16th century, Europeans could define Indians simply as ‘the natives of all unknown countries’ and use it to describe the inhabitants of the Americas.' 
Let me try to make sense of what the Professor is saying. Europeans invented 'the idea of India'. No Indian ever had a thought which corresponded to this European idea. Actually, even the Europeans didn't know the meaning of this idea. They didn't call the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas 'Indians' because Columbus believed he'd reached India; no, their idea of India was imperfect and included the American and other indigenous peoples they encountered on their voyages. Fortunately, at some point, the Europeans corrected their idea of India and passed it on to the Indians. however, because the Indians didn't invent it, nor did any Empire of theirs (that we know about) correspond to the present borders of India- therefore... therefore, what precisely? Well, for a start, clearly Pundit Nehru, the democratically elected Prime Minister of India, had no business resenting the Chinese invasion of Arunachal Pradesh. Why? India is a European idea. Nehru, despite his European education, was not European. Thus, he had no right to invoke it. But, if not European, what was he? Indian? No, Indians don't know the meaning of that word or, if they have learned it from the Europeans, still, precisely because they are Indian they can't validly claim to be Indian. Clearly, this is a question of Intellectual Property. Europeans invented the word India and a couple of thousand years later decided what that word would mean. Anderson is European, Nehru is not. Nehru might claim to be using the word 'India' under a license agreement on which he is paying royalty. However, Anderson, being European, can cancel that license at will. That will teach them darkies! 

The remainder of Prof. Anderson's essay on Gandhi, because rather than in spite of the (all utterly worthless) books listed in the bibliography, is similarly flawed in its arguments and conclusions. I have recently published an essay on Gandhi in a volume titled Ghalib, Gandhi, & the Gita which suggests that the two interesting things about Gandhi were the meta-metaphoric aspect of his thought and the manner in which this facilitated 'interessement' such that Gandhi became an 'obligatory passage point' in Indian politics. However, I confess I'm Indian. What's more I don't know Greek. Since 'India' is a Greek word, clearly I don't know India. Now, if only I could forget how to reason, I'd be fully qualified to write about Gandhi for the LRB.

1 comment:

  1. Aptly put.. A clear distortion of facts from s seemingly well heeled European whose primary intention from this piece was to wash a whole country's hands off the bloodshed it caused the world over for over 200 years.. At one point he says something along the lines of 'Big countries have big images and are big headed about things' and follows it up with 'India is a european invention' His second statement proves his first..